The team that taught me football: Part One

Best teams, worst teams.

It is all opinion and opinion is no bad thing but those opinions are formed by our experiences watching teams and players week in, week out each one teaching what could and should be done, what might be avoided.

I went to my first Bradford City game in 1981 on the last day of the season when we played Hereford United and lost 1-0. Since then I’ve seen hundreds of players and about a dozen or so managers and some I could not even recall playing but others have stuck in the mind and the ones which stick in the mind most are the ones who have formed my footballing opinions.

This is my team that taught me football.

Gary Walsh in goal

I’ve seen Paul Tomlinson frustrate strikers who rushed at him one to one because Tomlinson never got beaten one to one.

I’ve seen Matt Clarke bouncing around the goalmouth like a flea seemingly able to change direction in mid-air and had my heart in my mouth.

I know Paul Henderson was a model pro who settled himself down for the season astonishingly quickly and I’ve seen Jon McLaughlin race sixty yards to lump someone who has had a go at his friend and all these keepers have taught me something.

But none of them had what Gary Walsh had.

Gary Walsh taught me that goalkeeping was positioning. That the best keepers were the best not because they were athletic but because any athleticism they did show was second defence.

First was positioning. The ability to read a game and not thing a few moves ahead and then stand where they needed to be. Good goalkeeping is about looking forward, not reactions, and Walsh was able to do that.

So when I hear Match of the Day pundits say “They hit it straight at the keeper” then I raise a smile and think of Walsh, shuffling to the right two steps seemingly for no reason and then two seconds later taking the ball into his palms.

Nick Summerbee on the right wing

No one really liked Nick Summerbee and there were plenty of good reasons for that. His faking injury against City showed poor sportsmanship and his reluctance to join the club suggested that in his time at Valley Parade he would much rather have been anywhere else but what he did have – and what I took from watching him – was the uses of quality delivery.

Of course Peter Beagrie has superb delivery – better than Summerbee but then again everything in Beagrie’s team worked well and hardly anything in Summerbee’s team including Summerbee. He did not track back well enough, did not take control of games well enough, did not get involved enough. In fact all he did well was deliver the ball and he delivered the ball superbly.

And it is that which Summerbee taught me. What to do in a situation of limited talents. Managers would use Summerbee to take corners but seemed to notice that his team struggled to win anything from the delivery no matter how good it was. A great cross headed away and it was left to someone else to try create a second phase of the attack from the edge of the box.

And so Summerbee switched to that role. Rather than trying to deliver a good ball he would be detailed to get ball after it was headed clear and create an effective second phase. To return the corner with interest so to speak. In the football economics of scarcity it was an education. If you have two jobs to do that both require one player than the most obvious job is not necessarily the most productive one.

Summerbee did that for a time and drifted away from Valley Parade and no one really cared by that lesson is there when Garry Thompson tucks inside to form a firmer midfield rather than go to his man when everyone is screaming at him to make a tackle.

In left midfield Shaun Murray

When he was fifteen Shaun Murray was the best prospect in English football. Ten years later and having been through Tottenham, Portsmouth and Scarborough he had become a player for which it was said that he had a great future behind him.

He arrived at City, played a good season or two, and then faded making a decisive contribution in the gap left by Chris Waddle in 1997 before drifting away and joining Notts County on the way down as City went on the way up.

And so it would be easy to forget Shaun Murray were it not for a legacy he left for me which has become the yardstick of any creative player.

Shaun Murray always improved possession.

When he got the ball near the touchline he would either play a pass or win a throw in. When he got the ball near the byline he would either play a cross or win a corner. In the middle of the field he would find a good pass to a man who had space to do something with the ball or he would keep the ball and move it away from trouble.

So it was what he did not do that was educational. He did not try beat a man every time and get tackled, leading to the ball flying back against his team mates who were caught coming forward. He did not waste possession by putting in low percentage crosses. He did not dump the ball onto a teammate unwilling to take responsibility for his performance.

Which was nothing to do with being England’s one time brightest prospect or even from being especially talented it was from understanding the Cardinal virtues of football. That the job of a player in possession is to take responsibility and improve in the situation.

And every creative player since is judged by that yardstick.

Never criticise for making a mistake trying to do the right thing and want them to take responsibility for ensuring that when the ball leaves their feet the team are in a better position than when they got it. A bad pass is a mistake, running into two players you were never going to beat and having your team turned around is not.

The dominative not really a winger, not big enough for a central midfielder Shaun Murray was smart enough to realise that, and in realising that I learned a lot from him.

Travelling more in expectation than hope

The Team

Lenny Pidgeley | Lewis Hunt, Lee Bullock, Luke Oliver, Robbie Threlfall | Gareth Evans, David Syers, Jon Worthington, Omar Daley | James Hanson, Jake Speight | Luke O'Brien, Steve Williams, Luke Dean

Thirty years ago if you were a member of St Anthony’s Primary School football team – or the brother of a member who’s Dad drove kids to games – then as a reward for a season of not much return you were given the chance to go watch Bradford City’s last game of the 1980/81 season as the Bantams took on Hereford United.

That was my introduction to Bradford City, and there is a certain symmetry to this afternoon’s entertainment as the Bantams travel to Edgar Street to meet Hereford United. The first game was a scrappy end of season affair – although at the time an impressive watch – where the visitors nicked a 1-0 win. Today a point for both teams would have secured League football for both next season and unsurprisingly a point each was the return.

Unsurprisingly because the home side set out to secure such a return trying to retain possession as far back the field as they could for as long as they could seldom venturing into the Bantams penalty area.

The illusion was a strange one. It seemed like City were penning in Hereford and certainly the Bantams were enjoying playing with a sense of freedom that allowed the likes of David Syers – playing central midfield well – and Gareth Evans to lash at goal following James Hanson’s early attempt which threatened to derail the Bull’s afternoon.

The Bulls afternoon though was taking place miles away at the Crown Ground, Accrington where Barnet played Stanley. The machinations of that game seemed to tilt to this. Barnet level at 1-1 and there was a nervousness in the home side’s play but that nervousness lifted as Accrington took a lead which proved decisive.

That took until the second half and after the first forty five minutes the scorelessness seemed like a fog never to lift. The Bantams were unthreatened – Joe Colbeck was given the reception by the visiting fans one would expect but that seemed to serve to suggest he was more dangerous than he was and while no one especially enjoys hearing themselves abuse the look on Colbeck’s face as he banged a cross into the middle which was attacked by nobody looked more like distraction than upset.

If a winger putting in crosses for no one makes a wonderfully illustrative example of the game then City’s striker with no crosses seems to make another. James Hanson – at times – seems to never lose a ball in the air and one wonders what he could have done with the type of accurate crossing that Colbeck could do, and that the likes of Nick Summerbee and Peter Beagrie did.

Colbeck’s time at City – and his time since he left and the schadenfreude some City fans seemed to follow it with – sends my mind back sprawling to that first game on the 15th of May 1981 and how football has changed since then. Thirty years allows a guy the chance to reflect and that reflection is in the level of hope which used to be the currency and how that has been replaced with an unsavoury expectation.

Reading articles about the Bantams last decade you often read the phrase “ten years of failure” and while this is true from the prevalent point of view that anything other than promotion is failure but watching this last decade they were no different to many of the two which proceeded it.

Consider – if you will – the 1996/97 season of Chris Waddle and Edinho where relegation was avoided on the final day of the season. What we had that year was built on the next. That season of struggle Chris Kamara signed players like Robbie Blake and Jon Dreyer who were on the pitch two years later at Wolves when the Bantams were promoted to the Premiership.

No one ever said that finishing 21st was a roaring success that season but no one ever lambasted all involved as failures either and after that season lessons were learnt that drew a line directly to the successes which followed.

At some point after that failure started to describe anything which not success – this is semantics – and the rhetoric is that the club and supporters demand the best and should have high aims lest they achieve nothing but the practical upshot of throwing the word failure at anything which has not been promotion over the last decade is that Bradford City systematically rip the club apart over the course of every summer, throw things in the air and see where they land.

Failure – finding it wherever it can be hinted at – is the obsession of the current football mindset from top to bottom to such an extent that progress along the path to success is talked of as being it. Those who run football clubs need to be strong and need to stress that if the right things are being done then those things will not be changed because they have not come to fruition yet.

Are Bradford City at present on this path? You will judge for yourself on that, dear reader, just as you will also have a view on the merits and effectiveness of addressing the “failures” of Colin Todd, or Stuart McCall, and how the attempts to deal with those so called “failures” have brought us to the position we are in now.

Would City have been any worse if Colbeck – squarely presented as a problem and the cause of failure – had remained at the club? Would the last few years have been so different had Danny Forrest been up front? Has the season on season change of right backs produced a player more effective than Gareth Edds or has it just given us a series of different players?

Different players who have the same problems and ultimately exit in the same way and we – as a club and as supporters – relinquish our responsibly for the impact of that. The justification for replacing players is that those players seldom go on to a higher level following their time at the club as if the confidence lost, the access to a better standard of coaching lost, the experience of playing league football lost has no impact on the (lack of) progression of those players.

Joe Colbeck wanders up and down the Hereford United wing on one side, Gareth Evans on the City wing on the other, both look like players who seem on the edge of dropping out of professional football not because they are not useful, or skilled, or have potential but just to appease a desire to smash up what is there in the name of not tolerating failure but with the effect of not allowing building.

I think back to Robbie Blake and his goal at Wolves in another final away game of the season and how many times – had the current attitude in football been the way of thinking then – he would have been bounced out of Valley Parade rather than being allowed to be a part of a team which matured.

In thirty years between two games with Hereford United expectation has overcome hope. Everything about Bradford City is about the expectation that better can be demanded. It used to be that better was hoped for, but if that hope failed then it was renewed over the summer. This is only important because in the times of hope, rather than expectations, things improved more often.

What do we have in the summer? Hope or expectation? Or neither?

Peter Jackson took his Bradford City team to Hereford United looking for a point to keep League Two status secure – a modest return – and Hereford’s Jamie Pitman had the same aim which once results started to fall into place bound the teams to a defensive display a little less. Both ended the day safe from relegation with Barnet’s defeat seeing them battle Lincoln City to stay in the division. Stockport County were relegated.

Ultimately – at Edgar Street – James Hanson proved too much of a handful for home defender Stefan Stam and after he was fouled Jake Speight scored a penalty with ten minutes on the clock. Stuart Fleetwood equalised a few minutes later with a great free kick. That shot was the home side’s only attempt on target of the afternoon but it was the draw that everyone seemed happy with.

For the summer though who can tell. Over the last thirty years – and specifically the last decade or so – football’s expectation level has outstripped its ability to bring enjoyment in a great many ways. Supporting was its own reward, but now all rewards are delayed until there is a manifestation of success. Goals are cheered, wins are welcomed, promotions are celebrated but anything other than those things – and including the build up to those things – are drawn out grimly.

Football League safety is assure and the summer yawns out ahead with its own troubles and with that the idea that the unifying mood in August will be one of hope seems very, very far away and utterly old fashioned.

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